The following is a repost of my October 29, 2015 discussion of The Guest. After I published this post, Dan Stevens, the film's star, was cast as the title character on Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley's much-hyped Legion, an X-Men spinoff that will premiere next year on FX, while Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the duo behind The Guest, made a much-maligned Blair Witch Project sequel that was simply titled Blair Witch. The Guest is now streamable on Netflix.
"Mumblegore" filmmaker Adam Wingard has said the concept for his offbeat 2014 action thriller The Guest arose from watching a double feature of The Terminator and John Carpenter's original Halloween. So what would happen if you got your Terminator in my Halloween and you got your Halloween on my Terminator?
Marrying those two classic thrillers (and borrowing Carpenter's favorite typeface for the opening and closing titles, although Wingard would later regret choosing Albertus due to its sudden ubiquity) then led to the You're Next director and his regular collaborator, screenwriter Simon Barrett, taking additional inspiration from the 1987 cult classic The Stepfather for their story of a small-town waitress (Maika Monroe) who notices something's not quite right about her parents' houseguest, a well-mannered stranger (Dan Stevens) claiming to have served in Afghanistan with her dead soldier brother Caleb. Wingard and Barrett also took some inspiration from the various "seemingly nice stranger insinuates himself or herself into a benign household and gradually turns out to be a psycho" thrillers that followed in The Stepfather's wake, like 1992's The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which turned into the box-office behemoth some Stepfather fans wish the 1987 film had gotten to be.
The duo ended up making a film that's more satisfying and engrossing than any of the gazillion Stepfather clones and Hand That Rocks the Cradle ripoffs that dominated movie houses--and the Lifetime schedule--in the '90s. Even though The Guest is a highly stylized action thriller (dig that pulsating synth score by musician Steve Moore and the well-chosen and hypnotic existing songs by Love and Rockets and Norwegian electro-pop singer Annie) and Stevens does that hyperrealistic action movie thing of nonchalantly unpinning a grenade in each hand at the same time as if he's in a John Woo joint, there's a nice tinge of believability to The Guest that's not found in those '90s killers-living-in-the-house thrillers.
The believability emerges in the form of Anna Peterson, Monroe's character, figuring out way earlier than you'd expect--especially from a thriller like The Guest--that the stranger who identifies himself as David Collins is an imposter. Wingard said, "One of the things that we liked about being able to work in a movie that has some '80s and '90s genre nostalgia to it was, you're able to do the kind of thing where the kids get what's going on but the parents are totally clueless. That was a key factor to those films. That's just a fun dynamic to play with." The intelligence of Anna and her younger brother Luke (Brendan Meyer)--who's somewhat aware that there's something off about David, but he doesn't really care as much as Anna does because he's enjoying how David has taken to helping him fight off bullies at school--sheds light on how distracting it was that the family in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle was badly dumbed down in order for Rebecca De Mornay to get away with her reign of terror.
If you ever rewatch The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the movie turns into 100 minutes of you muttering, "No family in real life is that dumb!" The family in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle was so clueless and so trusting of the evil nanny that the mentally challenged handyman played by Ernie Hudson ended up looking like a Mensa member compared to everyone in the family.
The tension of "When is someone in this family going to get the hint that this new guy fell out of crazytown?" is nicely done away with in The Guest so that greater--and more interesting--tension can be built from "Will Anna or David gain the upper hand?" and "Where did this psycho come from?" The Guest is at its most effective as a thriller when it conceals the mysterious David's backstory. In fact, Wingard's original cut of The Guest ran much longer because it delved so much into his backstory. Getting rid of all that backstory was a wise decision. The first and second acts of The Guest keep you guessing David's actual identity and why he has infiltrated on Halloween this family that's still grieving over Caleb. Is David a criminal trying to get his hands on a stash of money stored in the Petersons' house? Could he be a cyborg who escaped from the military to hide out among civilians? Or is he an alien who slaughtered all of Caleb's unit in Afghanistan and then took the form of one of Caleb's comrades as part of a plot to lull Earth into an invasion?
Stevens, who's playing against his Downton Abbey romantic lead persona, is great at embodying two sides of David and doing subtle things with his performance-within-a-performance to make the audience say, "What is the story with this guy?" There's the well-mannered and chivalrous side that wins over Anna and Luke's parents, Spencer (Leland Orser) and Laura (Sheila Kelley), and attracts women like Kristen (Tabatha Shaun), Anna's co-worker at the local diner. And then there's David's abnormal side, like when he stares too long and hard at Luke at the dinner table when he first meets Luke, as if he's an alien trying to figure out how to consume ice cream in a cone for the first time, or the way David unsettlingly stares into space when he's by himself. Stevens is reminiscent of a younger Jeff Fahey, and in an alternate-universe version of this story if it were made in 1989 or 1990 by Hemdale, the indie studio that produced the original Terminator, or Cannon Films, whose logo is amusingly channeled by the Snoot Films logo that kicks off The Guest, you could easily picture Fahey starring as David.
|(Image source: Keith Calder)|
But the real find during The Guest is Monroe, the lead from director David Robert Mitchell's similarly striking horror flick It Follows. She looks like Gwen Stefani without all the weird and off-putting racial baggage. The Guest and It Follows are a fascinating pair of thrillers where Monroe stars as the kind of horror movie character author Carol J. Clover dubbed as "the Final Girl"--the last female standing in a horror flick with a massive body count--and is now the basis for director Todd Strauss-Schulson's meta slasher flick The Final Girls.
In It Follows, Mitchell subverts the Final Girl formula by making the girl who has the most sex in the movie the one who faces off against the killer at the end--instead of pitting a virginal heroine against the killer--and as that atypical Final Girl, Monroe makes for a solid lead who's more frazzled and vulnerable than action-thriller tough because of the incomprehensible nightmare her character is unable to overcome or make sense of for most of the movie. Meanwhile, in this thriller that preceded It Follows, Monroe plays a more traditional--and more strong-willed--Final Girl. But I actually prefer her performance in The Guest because she gets to show a little more range and cut loose for a couple of moments and be genuinely funny, like when Anna, before she takes David along with her to a Halloween party where she temporarily lets go of her suspicions about him, accidentally stumbles into a towel-clad David and becomes flustered by his chiseled bod, but in a believable way rather than an inane and cheesy rom-com kind of way.
There's humor in The Guest, but Wingard and Barrett handle it with subtlety (rather than playing it broadly) and a couple of odd references nobody in Stevens' native country of England or outside America will understand. I'm amused by the weird way the film emphasizes how much of an ordinary American family the Petersons are by naming Caleb's siblings and parents after characters from General Hospital. Anna's name is clearly a nod to heroic secret agent Anna Devane, while Luke gets his name from Luke Spencer and the names of the Peterson parents come from Luke's longtime love Laura. Either Wingard or Barrett is a secret fan of all the drama over in Port Charles.
It's great that the suitably named Anna gets to be smarter than everyone else in the film, but I wish she were smarter in one particular area: being able to notice that Stevens' otherwise perfect Southern accent, like almost all other American accents attempted by British actors who portray Americans, gets all weird when he says the word "anything" and pronounces it as "ennathin." I've always wanted to write that one thriller where someone realizes he or she is being held captive in a fake, the Village from The Prisoner-esque version of America by a British person who's pretending to be American and is actually working for the enemy (or maybe evil aliens) because the way the captor pronounces "anything" gives away that something isn't right about their surroundings.
Then our protagonist shoots his or her captor in the head and says, "That's not how to pronounce 'anything,' bitch."